Over in my former blog home, Steve James writes about why Christmas is an atheistic holiday.

In my view, Christmas is the most atheistic holiday of all. Or at least anti-Christian.

Mind you, I don’t mean that odd little religious holiday of the same name–the one with Baby Jesus and Three Kings and Manger scenes.

I mean the one that tends to be celebrated: The obvious parody of the Chrisatian holiday. Instead of Jesus, we have Santa Claus, who could be described as “What God would be like if he had a sense of proportion.” He brings gifts instead of eternal life and coal instead of eternal hellfire. He has magical powers as ridiculous as those of Jesus, like the ability to climb chimneys and make ruminants fly, which are much more useful than Jesus’ ‘casting out demons into pigs’ kind of thing.

I think it’s not so much atheistic as clearly mythological. Although atheists don’t make any distinctions between deities and children’s stories, theists do. A Christian has no trouble accepting the obvious reality of the Trinity while considering the mythologies of Greece or the Vikings or China or Christmas obviously fictional.

Society doesn’t easily accept minority religions. Those that are developed locally, like Mormonism or Scientology or Baha’iism, are considered dangerous cults, even if they’re not very different from the established religions. Those that have a long history but are ultimately imported are derided as foreign and dangerous, as the treatment of Muslims in the West and Christians in Islamic countries will show.

Now, the Santa story is not meant to be believed. In a modern context, neither is Greek mythology. Presumably, if nobody really believed the Book of Mormon, it could be a similar mythology; for sure, it’d be less lyrical than Greek mythology and less appropriate for children than Christmas, but it could function as, for example, a Wagnerian folk story.

16 Responses to Christmas

  1. whig says:

    Now come, Alon, you make sweeping generalizations here and miss an important point of folk religions — the very tales that you consider mythologies or legends may be important religious metaphors every bit as significant and important as those written down in old languages that few modern speakers understand.

    The point of religion, and of folk tales, is to pass along traditions in a form that they will be understood by later generations. You might not take their meaning, and God knows how many people twist things to serve their own purposes.

    Still, it’s important to keep our inherited knowledge, even as we learn new ways of applying it and passing it on.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    In that case, I suppose a good distinction between the two kinds of folk tales is that one is meant to be believed in, while the other isn’t. Wagner didn’t intend people to really believe in Valkyries; he just wrote it to get people to glorify German nationalism by analogy. In contrast, Joseph Smith fully intended people to believe in the Book of Mormon; its status as a mythology-style folk tale was only established once people believed in it.

  3. whig says:

    I don’t know how you determine whether someone intended people to believe or not. Even jokes can carry morals.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Oh, I’m not talking about the morals, but about whether people intend the story to be believed or not. Usually, it’s easy – when a religious person tells you stories from scripture, they’re meant to be believed, but when he tells you stories that are understood to be fictional, they’re not.

  5. whig says:

    I consider most religious stories to be metaphors and even Jesus called them parables.

  6. whig says:

    I think if a fundamentalist believes metaphors are literally true, then it hardly matters what his or her scripture is.

  7. whig says:

    I guess what I’m saying is, I’m a religious person, and I don’t have much of anything in common with the caricature you draw.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    I consider most religious stories to be metaphors and even Jesus called them parables.

    I’m not talking about parables, but about the entire Bible. The Gospels are meant to be taken very literally, in the sense that Christians are supposed to believe that Jesus really existed, and lived and died more or less as written in the New Testament.

  9. whig says:

    So your beef is over the historiography of Jesus, and/or other major or minor characters in the scriptures?

  10. whig says:

    In truth to me it is not as important as understanding the lessons.

  11. whig says:

    Say, for instance, that the entire Bible is a work of fiction. The narrator assumes the first person omniscient voice at times. That would be your God character, in whatever aspect he is appearing at any given time. Say it’s just a good story, but one that imparts moral and practical lessons to the reader.

    The purpose of the narrative is to communicate the lessons.

  12. whig says:

    Then here is the magic trick — when you follow the lessons you learn what the words mean.

  13. whig says:

    The Bible is not a work of fiction.

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